The Girls "Over There"

Base Hospital #30 Nurses

Nurses of Base Hospital No. 30. Standing on the second row are Mayme Williamson (fifth from left) and Alta Ireland (sixth from left).

(UC San Francisco Special Collections)

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Photograph of Vera Marston. (San Francisco Examiner)

In letters home, army nurses had who had left their hometowns and crossed the Atlantic often reported that they had arrived “somewhere in France”. While they weren’t able to share their specific locations in France, nurses still managed to paint vivid portraits of their day-to-day lives in the army for family and friends back home.

In early June 1918, Captain and Mrs. William H. Marston received word, at last, that their daughter, Vera, had arrived safely at a hospital in France. Marston had enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps on December 4, 1917 and departed for France with Base Hospital No. 30 in spring 1918. Her letter, reprinted in the Oakland Tribune, brought the battlefield home to Berkeley.

“I never could have imagined the beauty of France,” Marston wrote during the cramped journey by rail from Le Havre to Royat. “I saw little of our port town but it was beautiful. We are traveling now and this is being written on their dinky cars but the train is very long. One certainly can appreciate our modern United States when traveling here but we accept it as France and war.”

Marston and her fellow army nurses would come to accept much more than an uncomfortable train ride in the weeks and months that followed.

U. S. Army Hospital Number 30, Royat, France: One of the nurse's sleeping rooms in the Hotel Richlieu

Example of nurse's sleeping quarters at the Hotel Richlieu in Royat, France. (National Library of Medicine)

U. S. Army Hospital Number 30, Royat, France: Post office in the Royat Palace

View of the post office, located in the Royat Palace. (National Library of Medicine)

No one base hospital was the same as another. When opening base hospitals, the Army made use of existing buildings, such as schools, hotels, and factories, rather than spending precious time and resources on new construction. Depending on where they were located, some nurses dined on fine china, while others took their meals in cramped accommodations while eating from wooden dishes.

After arriving in Royat, Marston described her living quarters, writing,

“We are billeted very comfortably in an old hotel in the middle of town. Everything is very crude, but we like it. We eat from wooden tables with no table cloth or napkin and with benches. The food is very plain, but tasted good. Our room has two small cots for furniture and we are lucky to have a fireplace and mantle for adornment.”  

Life in the Army Nurse Corps was rewarding, but hard, work. In addition to their duties on the wards or in operating rooms, nurses were often responsible for their own laundry and had to find time to clean their clothing and uniforms in between other tasks. Most hospitals lacked a dedicated space for laundry, leaving nurses to hang their uniforms to dry in their already small living spaces.

Uniforms were required to be worn at all times, on or off duty.  All nurses had a seven o’clock curfew, but they could request written permission from their chief nurse to be out after nine o’clock. Nurses were also prohibited from dining in officers’ quarters or in mess halls, and they were not allowed to socialize with enlisted men. These regulations were intended to identify and protect the women serving in the Army Nurse Corps.  

Misses Dunn and Ireland Leaving Clermont-Ferrand

Alta Ireland (right) with another army nurse before leaving Clermont-Ferrand. (University of California San Francisco Special Collections)

When they weren’t working, the nurses found ways to unwind and make the most of their free time. Opportunities for travel were hard to come by, but when off duty at the base hospital, nurses still made the best of their situation. Teatime, musical concerts, picnics, and strolls were popular, and one of the most beloved pastimes among nurses was holding dances, with officers invited to attend.

Throughout their time in the Army, these women balanced a job that was physically and emotionally demanding with new friendships formed among their fellow nurses and keeping their families back home informed of their everyday lives as army nurses.

The Girls "Over There"